I find myself suddenly immersed in the world of pet urns. As I discussed a few weeks ago, my beloved dog Tucker died in mid-April. A week after the vet came to our house to euthanize Tucker at the end of his struggle with a brain tumour, my husband and I went to the veterinary clinic to pick up Tucker’s ashes. They were given to us in a small, plain, cardboard box (a “scatter box,” they call it), exactly as our first dog Duffy’s ashes had been given to us four years ago, following his passing at the ripe old age of 15 years (that’s Duffy on the left in the photo up there, Tucker’s on the right).
Actually, Duffy’s ashes still sit in that same cardboard box. I couldn’t bear to look at the box when we first brought it home – I guess I just found it too stark a reminder of Duffy’s death. So we tucked it away for the time being on a shelf in my husband’s “hobby room” (where he builds his models – cars, aircraft, military vehicles, that sort of thing). At the time I believed we’d eventually think of something appropriate to do with the ashes, I just wasn’t sure what. We had lots of ideas – scatter them on the North Saskatchewan river, put them in a rock-like urn to be placed outside under his favourite bush, maybe put them in an urn and leave them on the shelf where the cardboard box currently stood. One thing I felt clear about was that I didn’t want anything containing the ashes to be displayed anywhere in the house where I would regularly see it. I guess it just seemed kind of macabre to me, the idea of having an urn on display.
As is typical for my Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), I went into avoidance/procrastination mode because I couldn’t decide what the perfect solution for Duffy’s ashes was. So the ashes sat there in the original cardboard box. As the months and years slipped by, I felt increasingly guilty that I hadn’t done anything definitive with Duffy’s ashes, but still didn’t know what to do, so I just suppressed that guilt by trying not to think about it.
Then for some reason, when we brought Tucker’s box of ashes home a few weeks ago, I felt just fine about leaving it on a table in our living room for the time being, instead of immediately hiding it away like I had with Duffy’s. This time I felt a clarity about what we should do with these ashes – we should buy an attractive, appropriate urn and leave it on display in the living room. I suppose I realized that the fact that Duffy’s ashes were still in a box in our home after these years meant that I didn’t really want to scatter the ashes or put them outside. It just felt right to have them inside with us (as weird as I would have found that a few years ago). One thing I think I’ve learned about grief is, whatever feels right to me is what I should go with, whether it’s what I feel up to doing on a given day, or how I decide to honour the memory of my dogs; there’s just something about grief that almost commands me to do whatever I’m feeling, right in that moment, so I’ve just been trying to listen to those feelings and follow them. It’s very unusual for me because I typically over-analyze everything I do, but going with my instincts has been working so far, at least as far as the grieving process goes.
So I just knew that I wanted an urn for Tucker’s ashes. I started to look online for ideas, and wow, there are a lot of pet urn options out there. It quickly turned into one of my beloved projects! So many choices: metal, wood, ceramic, glass, resin; spots to place a photo; poems and sayings carved into them; every shape imaginable; and prices that ranged from simple mass-produced urns for $20 to hand-made pieces of art for $400 (and up).
One interesting thing I found as I was looking through the various websites featuring hundreds of urns (and of course, according to my perfectionist nature, I had to look at all of them before making any choices), was that even though I had started out looking for an urn for Tucker, I found myself drawn to urns that I thought would be appropriate for Duffy (something I wasn’t sure would ever happen). Ideas started popping into my head: “Ooh, I like this one, it has a woodsy scene on it, Duffy loved the woods.” “Oh, I love this one, it reminds me of the northern lights, perfect for a dog from northern British Columbia.” “Wow, what a beautiful wooden container, very appropriately rustic.”
I’m not sure why it initially seemed easier for me to find urns for Duffy, who died years ago, than Tucker, who died weeks ago. I wonder if I just needed this much time to fully process my grief for Duffy, and that sense of closure somehow makes it easier for me to imagine the right urn for him. Sometimes I think it’s possible that I didn’t fully grieve Duffy when he died, and it took the death of Tucker to bring my grief over Duffy back to the surface to finish being processed.
In the days and weeks after Duffy passed four years ago, I don’t think I took my grief seriously enough – I was getting through the day, and after all, I told myself, this wasn’t the same as a human dying, was it? However, I recently read an article written by a psychology professor in which he states that “the loss of a dog is, in almost every way, comparable to the loss of a human loved one.” I guess then it makes some sense that when one of my dogs dies, it hits me hard, harder than even I might recognize. Indeed, three months after Duffy died, I had a significant decline in my mental health that I’ve never quite recovered from. No doubt Duffy’s death was just one factor in that decline, but I’m certain the timing was no coincidence.
Lately, I’ve sometimes felt a bit anxious that the mental stress caused by Tucker’s passing might compromise my mental health again (hmm, getting anxious about potential anxiety, that’s pretty much peak GAD right there!). For the past couple of years, I’ve had the fear that my mental health is like a house of cards – I feel like I’m getting better, placing those cards of mental wellness in position, one after another, but I feel like one little bump, and it could all come down, just as it felt like it did after Duffy died. I’ve been reminded (by my psychiatrist, family, friends, a pretty long list of people, really) that I’m not in the same place that I was back then, that I have a lot more tools for coping now – and I know that’s true. Nevertheless, that concern does still tend to pop into my mind sometimes (more classic anxiety disorder stuff: worry that is impervious to rational argument).
So I’ve been a bit more intentional about being open to my grief this time around, to acknowledge its significance and to allow myself to experience it fully. To that end, a couple of weeks ago I went to a pet bereavement support group. I wasn’t sure I needed to go, but I decided that in an effort to look after my mental wellness, I should take every opportunity to process my grief in a healthy manner. And it turned out to be a really helpful experience – whenever I go to support groups, I find that there’s something about being in the same room with people who are experiencing the same challenges as I am that puts me in touch with a deeper level of insight into my own feelings.
And I guess my ongoing pet urn research is another way I’ve been processing my grief. I’ve narrowed down the urn options for Duffy and Tucker to, oh, about 10 possible urns each. The next step is to discuss the choices with my husband, and for us to make the final decision (maybe I’ll post photos of the ones we choose). I have a GAD-related tendency to get this far in any decision-making process (research the options, narrow it down to the best couple of choices), and then fail to commit to a final decision that I follow through on (the whole avoidance/procrastination thing). This time I really want to see it through, to push myself to take that final action, and to have the experience of riding out the discomfort of questioning whether I made the perfect choice. I’m trying to embrace the idea that an imperfect choice is better than no choice, that the search for that elusive, impossible feeling of perfection actually leads nowhere. And my pups definitely deserve better than that.